Authors: Sharon Green
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Epic
“Work habits are a bit sloppy and ill-disciplined,” Rigos went on, reading the evaluation with relish. “Practice is almost certainly being ignored, as progress has been somewhat slow. Exercises are sometimes regarded as indignities, but are executed when trainer insists… Attitude is extremely sensitive to all criticism, therefore subject must be treated gently… Overall progress … painfully slow.”
“Maybe that was written because the trainer didn’t get what he kept asking for, and I don’t mean teaching results,” Selendi blustered, fully indignant but obviously hesitant to show it too strongly. “He’s a dull and tedious fool, and usually completely unreasonable. I’m a lot more accomplished than I was to begin with, so that proves he’s lying.”
“No, Lady Selendi, it only proves how good a job he’s done,” Rigos corrected, his tone sour. “But you’re not the only one at fault, so let’s continue. Kambil Arstin, Spirit magic.”
Delin glanced at Kambil, the one member of his group that he wasn’t yet entirely sure of. Kambil was certainly a full member of their class, but at times he made Delin uneasy. He wasn’t a pliable fool like the others, his only weakness seemed to be a lack of shallowness, and he wasn’t filled with burning, unrealized ambition. That last was what disturbed Delin the most, but he had no choice about waiting and seeing.
“Work habits are efficient and based on a full sense of cooperation,” Rigos recited with relish, as though deliberately taunting Delin. “Practice is sometimes overlooked in favor of other undertakings, but progress is satisfactory in spite of that. Exercises are being progressed through at too slow a rate, but that seems to stem from excessive caution. Attitude is excellent in this subject, and overall progress is only just under the best to be expected.”
“His trainer sounds like he’s in love with him,” Selendi commented archly, doing a poor job of hiding her jealousy. “Maybe if I tried that with
“I would suggest, Lady Selendi, that you first try applying yourself to the work,” Rigos answered when Kambil just sighed and shook his head. “This is the sort of report I expect to get on all of you in the near future, so kindly keep it well in mind. The next is Bron Kallan, Fire magic.”
Bron looked up languidly, but the glance he sent to Delin showed something of his true state of mind. Bron feared Rigos because of the agent’s higher social and political position, and was therefore delighted to have Delin to stand behind.
“Work habits are more casual than organized, but something of an effort
being made,” Rigos read, his voice now neutral. “Practice is done when the subject is reminded about it, but otherwise is ignored. Exercises are being progressed through
rapidly, without true mastery being attained. Attitude is generally fair, except when subject is ‘fired up’ about some matter, and then it approaches an acceptable level. Overall progress is almost acceptable, except for the matter of lack of mastery.”
“It looks like I’ll have to show him the area where I
a master,” Bron drawled, uncertain relief in his eyes. “Other than that, though, it didn’t sound too bad.”
“It also didn’t sound too good,” Rigos countered, ruthlessly crushing Bron’s optimistic outlook. “There’s considerable room for improvement, which I expect to see rather soon. And last, as dessert, so to speak, we have Homin Weil, Water magic.”
The extreme relish in Rigos’s voice wasn’t missed by Homin, who froze where he sat huddled into himself. Impatient intolerance tried to flare up in Delin every time he looked at Homin, but that would have been futile. Homin couldn’t help being the fearful lump he was, his presence in the group did most to quiet any suspicions Rigos might have had, and most importantly, Delin had no choice but to use him.
“Work habits are all but nonexistent in this subject,” Rigos read, making some small effort to appear dispassionate. “Practice is apparently out of the question, for some reason the subject is unable to explain. Exercises are slow and painful attempts that tend to defy advancement for a longer period of time than they should, and the prevailing attitude is a constant expectation of failure. For these reasons, despite the subject’s potential, overall progress has been extremely slow when it appeared at all.”
Homin’s eyes were now closed, and his over-fleshed face had gone pale. He seemed to know that he wasn’t destined to escape as lightly as everyone else had, and he was perfectly correct.
“Perhaps you’d care to explain to
, Lord Homin, why it is that you’re unable to practice,” Rigos said in a voice chipped from a block of flint. “Your trainer may not be able to understand, but surely the matter can be clarified here and now.”
“I—it’s too disruptive to the household to practice,” Homin muttered, eyes still closed. “I did try, Sir, I really did, but it caused too much—disruption.”
“You drowned someone?” Rigos inquired politely, his brows somewhat raised. “You flooded your father’s library? You ruined your mother’s brand new entertaining room furniture? You turned everyone’s underclothes damp? Help me to understand just how disruptive you were, Lord Homin.”
The terrified man simply shook his head in defeat, most likely understanding that nothing he said would do any good. And Delin knew he was correct again, which Rigos promptly proved for the second time.
“Apparently the matter is too trivial for you to be disturbed over it,” the agent stated, his tone now as flat as his stare was hard. “You’re the worst offender, Lord Homin, but none of your associates is innocent. Each and every one of you needs to improve his or her performances, otherwise forming you into a Blending will be futile. And you’re scheduled to soon
formed into one, which at this point will also turn your group into a laughingstock. Do you really want to become known as the worst challenging Blending to stand up for the nobility?”
He looked around at all of them then, the look on his face fierce. “Yes, that’s what will happen when you perform in the competitions. Everyone will laugh at your efforts, but that doesn’t include the Advisors. You may take my word for the fact that they will
be laughing, but they will certainly have something to say to you afterward. And to your families.”
The others promptly began to look almost as upset as Homin, but it was the opening Delin needed. He’d been looking for a reason to speak up, and now he had it.
“And our families are certain to be displeased with us for failing in our duty to the Advisors,” he said with a weary sigh. “This is hardly a trivial matter like punctuality, so we’ll need to do something about it. Hopefully it will be the right something, and next week’s reports will be much improved. We’ll certainly discuss the matter as long as necessary once you’ve left, even if it takes the rest of the afternoon and evening.”
“I knew I could count on you to see the consequences clearly, Lord Delin,” Rigos purred, delighted to have what he considered a concession of defeat from Delin. “I’m also taking steps to remedy the problem, but that’s for the future when the solution has been approved by my superiors. Right now I’ll leave you to your discussions, which will hopefully prove fruitful enough to avoid the necessity of any other action.”
Delin hadn’t the faintest idea what Rigos was talking about, but the Advisory agent was definitely threatening them with something. And yet the something could be avoided so it was obviously time to advance to the next part of the plan. When Rigos stood they all did the same, except for Selendi, and exchanged polite bows of goodbye. Rigos left the room slowly, his lack of hurry deliberate, but nothing was said among them even when he was out of sight. Kambil glanced around before sauntering after the small agent, and was gone for a few minutes. Silence reigned until he returned, a relieved expression on his face.
“I personally watched his carriage pull away,” Kambil announced as he headed for the bar rather than the tea service. “I also have three servants on watch, just in case he decides to return unexpectedly. Every time that man talks to me, I experience the urge to find a bath house at once.”
“Slimy is much too kind a description of him,” Delin said with a smile, suddenly feeling considerably better about Kambil. “But we really do need to discuss our next move, and Bron has told me he’s ready to do just that.”
“Yes, I certainly am,” Bron agreed after glancing at Delin and clearing his throat. “You all know we’ve been dragging our feet deliberately to keep them from becoming suspicious, but the time for that is over. They’ve now
that we do better, so we’ll have to oblige them. But remember to do it slowly and in spurts, not all at once and immediately. They’ve threatened us into improving, so it ought to please them when we do. Are you going to have a problem with that, Homin?”
The question was obviously because of Homin’s expression, which showed his agitation barely calmed. The man apparently had something of a problem, and he pushed himself to his feet and went to the tea service before answering.
“I—normally would have no trouble showing the necessary improvement,” he said, paying attention only to his shaking hands, which were engaged in pouring him tea. “My problem goes beyond the normal, however, and I’m—afraid I’ll need to—speak with our—general troubleshooter.”
Apparently Homin had had to force himself to ask for help, and Delin found himself distantly pleased. One of his people had need of him, and had had the good sense to speak up rather than ruin the plans.
“That means you want to speak to
,” Delin said, making himself appear flattered. “Certainly, old man, it will be my pleasure to assist you. Let’s step to the other side of the room to keep from disturbing the general conversation.”
Homin nodded and followed Delin to the far side of the large room, the cup and saucer in the heavy man’s hands clattering faintly as he moved. Delin knew that that was due to nervousness rather than to clumsiness, and turned to the other man with a soothing smile.
“Now what can I do for you?” he asked gently. “I’m assuming this has something to do with that odd explanation you gave about not being able to practice.”
“Yes, it does,” Homin admitted at once, but with a quaver in his voice. “I couldn’t tell Lord Rigos, of course, not when I’d been specifically ordered to keep silent around him—”
“Ordered?” Delin interrupted, now having to fight to keep his tone light and easy. How
some outsider give orders to one of his people? Homin wasn’t much, but he now belonged body and aspect to Delin.
“Yes, ordered,” Homin confirmed with a sigh, his eyes trying to close again. “My father’s new wife, Elfini. She insists on being in complete charge of the household and everyone in it, and won’t hear of my practicing. She can’t control it, you see, so she simply refuses to allow it. The one time I tried she used one of her whips on me, and it was the next day before I could move my back without fainting from the pain.”
“I’d heard the rumor about your father’s taste in pleasure, but until now I hadn’t quite believed it,” Delin said after sipping from his own teacup, which he’d carried with him. “Your father is such a strong, uncompromising man in public… But I’ve also encountered the lady Elfini, so there’s no longer any doubt. And she flatly refuses to let you practice?”
“She’s now going beyond that,” Homin said, visibly fretting all over again. “She took my identification bracelet while I was bathing, and if she and Lord Rigos weren’t enemies I’d probably still be begging for its return. And she means to punish me when I return home, simply because she knows how I loathe and fear it. I’ll never be able to accomplish anything with her doing things like this, so I wondered if you … I mean, would it be possible for you to … speak to her?”
“Speak to her?” Delin echoed, mostly hearing that phrase about Elfini and Rigos being enemies. The possibilities inherent in that situation were fascinating, giving Delin a marvelous idea. “Why, yes, Homin, I’ll be glad to go home with you and speak to her. But there’s a stop I have to make on the way, so I’m afraid you’ll be put to the bother of waiting a short while. Will you mind terribly much?”
“Not at all, Delin, I won’t mind at all,” Homin babbled, his relief turning him even more pathetic. “I’m sure your charm will change her mind, and I’ll be able to become a full member of our group. I don’t know how I can thank you…”
“Tut, tut, thanks aren’t necessary, old fellow,” Delin replied, putting an arm around Homin to turn him back toward the others. “We’re here to help one another, so that all of us might benefit. Right now we need to rejoin the others, and go into a bit of detail about the proposed changes in our efforts. After that you and I will leave together, eh?”
Homin agreed with loose-lipped gratitude, all but laughing over having Delin on his side. And Delin felt almost as pleased, just for a different reason. Rigos would regret ever having challenged him, and might even live a very long while with that regret. Delin hadn’t made up his mind about
part of it yet, but there was plenty of time.
Yes, plenty of time to add new wrinkles to old plans…
Now you’ve met our opponents, and certainly know them better than we did to begin with. I remember hearing someone wonder aloud about why it is that people struggle to make better lives for them and their families, and then turn around and ruin their children by indulging them too far or being too hard on them. The man was referring to the nobility, but I can’t see that they have a monopoly on children-ruining. You don’t even need gold and social position to do that, just … well, maybe it comes from having been ruined in some way yourself.
But wondering how people got the way they are is the last thing you think about when you’re faced with needing to deal with them. Their being unbalanced doesn’t mean they’re incompetent, and usually they have no qualms of conscience to keep them from doing anything they please to you. But I’m sure you already know that, so let’s get back to what happened in what order.
Jovvi didn’t have long to settle herself in the coach before it stopped again near a Fire magic symbol. Beside the round metal disk mounted on a post was Tamma, who had a heavy man standing and waiting with her. The man opened the coach door and helped Tamma inside, all the while radiating such strong fear and uncertainty that Jovvi had to block him out of her awareness. But as soon as the door was closed the coach continued on, so the distraught man was quickly left behind.